Special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russia’s meddling into the 2016 election is one year old, and President Donald Trump has congratulated the American people in mock celebration of the birthday.
“Congratulations America, we are now into the second year of the greatest Witch Hunt in American History… and there is still No Collusion and No Obstruction,” Mr Trump tweeted.
It’s not the first time Mr Trump has relegated the events in late 17th century Salem, Massachusetts to describe the investigation, and, given the scope of the investigation we’ve seen so far, it is unlikely to be the last.
In 365 days, the American public has seen glimpses of what appears to be an ever-broadening and aggressive investigation by the team attempting to get to the bottom of Russia’s meddling, and whether officials with the Trump campaign were complicit in that effort.
The investigation has led to more than a dozen indictments. It has seen countless tweets from Mr Trump. And it has polarised American political discourse.
One year on, here’s the low down on the Mueller investigation.
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What do we know has happened?
Since Mr Mueller’s investigation was created a year ago by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, 19 people have been indicted alongside three companies as the team has sought to connect the dots between actors in the 2016 election and Russia.
Those indictments have led to three guilty pleas from former Trump campaign or administration officials: Former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, deputy campaign chairman Rick Gates, and campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos. All three of these men are reportedly cooperating with Mr Mueller’s investigation, leaving open the possibility that they could provide crucial information about potential coordination between Trump associates and Russians.
None of those charges show that any collusion with Russians occurred, but Mr Flynn and Mr Papadopoulos both pleaded guilty to charges that they lied about contacts with Russians, or foreigners with connections to high-level Russian oligarchs or officials.
The other indictments have been filed against former campaign chairman Paul Manafort — who has pleaded not-guilty on dozens of charges including money laundering — as well as thirteen Russian individuals and three companies that ran Russian troll operations online that used propaganda to boost Mr Trump’s campaign. Some of those Russian trolls even met with Trump campaign staffers in Florida, using false names, though it has not been alleged that the staffers were willing participants in the affair.
One man, Dutch lawyer Alex van der Zwaan, has already been given prison sentence after pleading guilty on charges of lying to Mr Mueller’s team about contacts with Mr Manafort and Mr Gates. Mr van der Zwaan is the son of a Russian oligarch.
There has been other, non-formal, collateral damage from the investigation as well. The probe led to the withdrawal of a Trump nominee to become the ambassador of Singapore, and the withdrawal of a former senior Trump campaign official who had been nominated for a top job at the Department of Agriculture. Mr Trump’s son-in-law and White House adviser Jared Kushner also saw his security clearance downgraded after it was discovered that he had failed to disclose more than 100 foreign contacts on his initial clearance application.
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How has what we know about the investigation changed?
Mr Mueller’s investigation was birthed in the aftermath of the firing of former FBI Director James Comey, and the initial thrust was to look into possible coordination between people in Mr Trump’s orbit and Russia. But, it has since then expanded.
The charges against Mr Gates and Mr Manafort were for alleged crimes unrelated to the 2016 election, and instead focused on business dealings the two had with a pro-Russian political party in Ukraine years before the campaign.
The investigation also appears to be looking into Mr Trump’s personal attorney Michael Cohen, and business dealings he has had with major companies like AT&T and Novartis in which he was paid six- or seven-figure commissions for “insights” since Mr Trump’s inauguration, which Mr Mueller apparently knew about in November, but just became public knowledge just days ago. Mr Cohen allegedly told the drug maker on his access to Mr Trump, and the payments — ostensibly for lobbying — have been generally seen as unconventional in their approach.
Mr Cohen’s offices were also raided by the FBI and prosecutors in the Southern District of New York, in an investigation that itself appears to be multi-faceted — from potential campaign finance violations for paying adult film star Stormy Daniels $130,000 in hush money to keep her silent about an alleged 2006 affair with Mr Trump, to Mr Cohen allegedly owing New York as much as $54,000 for taxi medallions — and has been thought to have been aided, at least in part, by findings from Mr Mueller’s probe.
Mr Mueller’s team is also reportedly looking into potential obstruction of justice by Mr Trump. That obstruction could include Mr Trump allegedly urging Mr Comey to “let go” of his investigation into Mr Flynn, as well as Mr Trump’s public musing about potentially firing Attorney General Jeff Sessions for recusing himself from concerns related to the Russia case.
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How does this investigation stack up against past independent investigations?
The Mueller investigation may seem like it’s taking quite a long time — Vice President Mike Pence and Mr Sessions, who have both said they think the affair should conclude, sure seem to think so — but analysts say that it is actually moving at a pretty remarkable speed compared to other investigations.
The Whitewater scandal in the 1990s, where the Clintons were investigated for real estate dealings, didn’t produce indictments for a year and a half, for instance. That investigation droned on for nearly eight years, and included several independent counsels who investigated the allegations. The Clintons were not charged in the criminal sense, but former President Bill Clinton was impeached by a Republican-controlled House of Representatives. He was not removed form office by the Senate on obstruction of justice charges, however.
How has the president been influencing the investigation?
Mr Trump has been doing his best to discredit the investigation, with tweets like the one on Thursday where he called the whole thing a witch hunt once again.
It is not clear how much of an impact that could actually have. While public support for Mr Mueller continuing to do his job has waned in the year since he was assigned, the majority of the public still supports the investigation. Even if that support dwindles below majority support, though, it may not have much impact. Mr Mueller isn’t an elected official; he doesn’t need public support.
Is the president going to be interviewed?
Nobody knows the answer to this question except, perhaps, Mr Trump himself. The Trump orbit has given various hints as to whether he will. Mr Mueller’s team, for their part, have provided Mr Trump’s lawyers with topic areas they would like to discuss.
Former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who is heading up Mr Trump’s legal response to the investigation, has indicated that he does not plan on making it easy for the special counsel. He’s said that Mr Mueller may need to serve up some subpoenas to get to the president.
Either way, experts have mused that the very fact that Mr Mueller wants to talk with Mr Trump may show that the investigation may be coming to a head, at least as far as the president is concerned.
What can we expect next?
By most accounts, Mr Mueller’s team at this point is likely looking to piece together all of the connections after their year investigating potential connections. It’s hard to say exactly what that means — the general public likely knows very little about how much Mr Mueller’s team actually knows. The public has seen some highlights, but what the puzzle shows when put together is anyone’s guess.
That said, one might expect to hear a bit more about Mr Cohen’s business dealings and we are almost certainly going to hear more about the alleged Daniels affair — even if the new details are not strictly connected to Mr Mueller’s campaign.
Mr Manafort will be in court this summer in a trial that could send waves through Washington. That’s in spite of his efforts to have his trial thrown out because it is related to non-campaign issues.
But, 2018 is also an election year, and primaries are already being held ahead of the midterms. The Justice Department has a long history of attempting to keep quiet about its investigations in election years, for fear that their investigations could influence voters. Respecting that history, Mr Mueller may pull his investigation back a bit, or information about the investigation may just be released at a slower rate.
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How does this all end?
It’s anyone’s guess how damning the information Mr Mueller uncovers will be or is, but he will almost surely write a report about his findings when he’s done, whether Mr Trump is implicated or not.
The president is unlikely to face any criminal charges related to the inquiry, as the judicial system has generally not allowed sitting presidents to be indicted.
But, if Mr Trump is implicated in the report, he could face impeachment, depending on the political headwinds he finds himself. That could happen, for instance, if Democrats regain control of the House this November and are armed with a report showing bad behaviour on his part. It appears unlikely that Mr Trump would be removed from office even if he is impeached, as it would take a vote in the Senate — where it is much less likely Democrats will regain control — for that to go through.
As for what the public ends up knowing, it is hard to say. The Justice Department may determine that it is in the public’s interest to disclose most or all of the report, or it may not. They will likely hand the materials over to Congress, but, again, it is hard to say whether Congress would make the report public.